You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Anna Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandrro Nivola .USA. 1h 35m
Writer : You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames.

Sometimes simple is best, and there’s not a lot of pfaffing around in Lynne Ramsay’s hypnotic and sometimes deeply savage drama that follows a few days in the life of a volatile man who lives to protect women. The Scottish director returns from her disturbing cult classic from 2011 We Need to Talk About Kevin, with an equally challenging movie. Ramsay’s ability to tell a straightforward story with incredible backstories, undercurrents that twist and turn really enforces her powerful approach to storytelling.

Joe (Phoenix) is deadly to everyone around them and possibly himself, by day he spends his time comforting his charming mother (Roberts) and being a wonderful upbeat son, there are signs of something more disturbing lingering somewhere behind his cold stare he suffocates himself for kicks when alone in his room and plays with knives in a Damoclesian fashion. When night falls, Joe spends this time smacking bad guys with hammers and rescuing damsels in distress. After picking up a job from a desperate senator, searching for his daughter (Nivola) Joe finds himself tangled in a web of conspiracy and danger, while things spin wildly out of control he might just get his wish for death fulfilled.

Huge and subtle hints are dropped through the movie, in frequent flashbacks, some visual, others just audible not only showing Ramsays’ versatility and adoration of really difficult characters, but highlighting Joe’s tragic childhood abuse from this hands of his father, something so violent and repulsive, but he holds onto by using his father’s favourite weapon as his own, a trusty hammer. If you’ve never faced depression or PTSD before, then this film will give you a pretty authentic representation of what goes on with someone experiencing both.

It’s rare that a man who is so heavily flawed end up becoming such a hero, despite not coming across as some kind of marvel superguy, he is a deeply sensitive man, he’s sick sometimes before starting a job, his nerves on edge before the action kicks off, and he attempts to kill himself daily or at least tries to experience as much pain as possible, and yet he goes above and beyond to rescue missing girls that have often been sold into the sex trade. It’s like he doesn’t want to but there’s a need to do this work.

There’s a slight message of “the one that got away” in the early scenes which is set up so cleverly, we believe that Joe’s a killer, on a mission to take someone out as a deadly assassin, Ramsays plays with our perception constantly, but it seems that this debut rescue attempt failed and this sticks with him, as if his one goal of protecting women is what is keeping him alive. We see this reoccur in cinema through the ages, a man on the edge, trying to save women, from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver () to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), and even the genre defining Leon The Professional () which also follow a similarly quiet hero as his’s pulled or forced into a massive lie which he struggles to get out of.

Each time the plot twists Ramsay gives us a blood bath, one of those which really makes anyone sits back into their seat involves the first betrayal, this isn’t much of a spoiler,as it is in the trailer, but when the girl Joe has rescued is stolen from him, he goes into some kind of sadistic reflex mode and steps up to get her back again but the scene, set in a plain motel room everything happens so incredibly quick and bloody, no sign posting just silent and violent. A lot of the action comes from reflections in ceiling mirrors, captured from CCTV and then topped off with something completely random (and usually ad libbed), at one point Joe feels sorry for one of his victims and lays next to him so he doesn’t have to die alone. You can’t prepare for this movie not only does it hit hard with realistic brutality , but it’s constantly coated in emotive editing.

Definitely one of Phoenix’s finest roles to date, and easily a pre runner to his damned near perfect portrayal of the Joker (2019). It’s easy to see why Ramsay almost handed the reigns to him on the odd occasion as he seemed to be growing into THIS role and was on the verge of something truly great. Her choice to drastically alter the Joe from the original novel, a man with gadgets and tech, who wouldn’t leave a trace to make sure he was never really there, into someone who cannot be forgotten was the best of this cinematic adaptation that it handled with such delicacy and charm while really rattling the psyche of its audience.


Rating: 8/10

Related: Taxi Driver (1976), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Trafficked (2017)
Lists: Depression Flicks, One Man One Mission, Water Burials in Movies.
Spotlight: Joaquin Phoenix, Lynne Ramsay.

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